My mother has the mouth of a sailor.
This would be a heartwarming and mildly curious habit if she weren’t a Presbyterian minister. The phrase, “get your f**king shoes on and or you’ll be late to church,” was commonplace for a Sunday morning. There was, “why the hell is your father always late?” And before leaving the house, the inevitable lost key tirade. Her harshest, most shocking language was always reserved those “goddamn” lost keys.
If that leads you to believe that she isn’t the most dedicated of Christians, you’d be wrong. She is. My mother lives by the teachings and philosophy of the New Testament, which means that she isn’t homophobic or to the right of anything. The church, she feels, is being overrun by people who give Christianity a bad name. She is an intellectual and she believes in God. Yes, they do exist.
She isn’t one to beat on Bibles, partly because it is a text that she taught for 25 years as a college professor. For her, the Bible inspires thought and the exchange of ideas. It’s not a manual for living. She knows that each person has to write that as you go along.
My mother knows that life is messy and ugly and random and terrifying.
She survived breast cancer but lost her beloved sister to it several years ago. Her marriage of over 25 years ended in divorce. I’m her only daughter, and I’ve been witness to some of the darkest moments. To be honest, I’ve caused more than a few of them.
Because this isn’t a Hallmark mother’s movie I can give it to you straight: I was a difficult teenager. Many of you out there are them, or have them. Shiva help you both. If there was one moment I saw my mother question her faith, it was during that time. It involved a lot of pot and my absolute disrespect of everything she stood for. I made her weep. My mother is a curser, not a weeper.
Some memories make you shudder at your own cruelty. I know I’ll pay mine in this, and in many more lifetimes.
She’s lost years of sleep over me and my hijinks. The same wacky spontaneity that led me to get me to an ashram also led me to alcohol and cigarettes and a long, prosecutable list. I felt it was my responsibility as the preacher’s daughter to raise every known brand of hell and invent a few more while I was at it. I broke my mother’s heart daily for many years.
And because this isn’t a Hallmark Mother’s Day movie, I can tell you that my mother was no Donna Reed. Cursing isn’t the half of it. She admitted to me when I was still a child that, “small children weren’t her age group.” She said she was much better with adults because you could actually talk about ideas. There was no mother and daughter playtime. As one of the earliest ordained Presbyterian ministers, my mother had to work twice as hard to prove herself in the church.
My mother loved working and didn’t know or care to know one damn thing about baking cookies. There were school plays where I stared out from the stage at her empty, reserved seat. After-school pick-ups were forgotten. Her own childhood had been short on physical affection, and when it came to hugs, Mom was of the stiff-armed, double back-pat variety.
Mom was part of a generational wave of working mothers who were trying to prove themselves. They wanted to show that women could indeed have it all. If there is one thing that women of all generations understand: we can try to pretend to have it all, but we can’t.
And she couldn’t. During the moments when she was being a mother, her work suffered. And when she was the ideal minister/professor I felt abandoned. She couldn’t win, a fact she pointed out many times. “What the fuck do you want me to do,” she said. “We need a roof over our heads and somebody has to pay for your therapy.”
I want to say that I’ve never been so raw with another person.
Rawly selfish and self-righteous and, sometimes, intensely loving with another person. For as much as my mother’s undomesticated ways pissed my childhood self off, her strong, smart, feminist qualities inspire me today. She didn’t give me a structured and easy childhood. True.
What she gave me was a childhood filled with literature and music and films and travel. She wanted her children to be smart. “I can’t give you self-esteem. That’s has to come from your own accomplishments,” she told me once. She introduced us to adult ideas and asked us what we thought about them. And when she asked me what I thought about them, she genuinely wanted to know.
The reason why I love the sh*t out of my mother is that I hated junior high school dances with a passion. I was badly permed and covered in acne and terrified of dancing, boys and social interaction in general. The day of one of these dreaded dances my mother came to me with a movie review. “I think you’d like this,” she said. The review was of Gus Van Sant’s ‘My Own Private Idaho.’
“It’s playing tonight if you want to go see it.” She knew that I didn’t want to go the dance. She also knew that this was an unrated movie about gay male hustlers. I had developed an early love of drag queens and queer culture, a love my mother never questioned or shamed me for. She never asked me if I was a lesbian (I’m not) or bought me a wardrobe of pink clothing. She didn’t give a crap about my being a girly girl. She felt, and rightly so, that this movie would stick in my head far longer than the memory of dancing to bad pop music in a cheap dress ever would.
My mother isn’t a prude, but I could feel her shifting in her seat while Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix went at it. We talked for an hour or so after the movie about the relationship between the two actors.
We talked about how you can find tenderness in the strangest of places. Like with your mom at a movie about gay hustlers. If there was a Hallmark version of our story, that would be our ‘Steel Magnolias’ moment.
I want to say that it took us years to make peace with each other, to surrender what has passed to the past. You didn’t know how to be the perfect mother, but I had not even the foggiest idea how to be even a mediocre daughter. It took me a decade of yoga and meditation to let go of my anger and be a decent human being to you. Like you, I found the richness and beauty of living a spiritual life. You always said I was on a path. Thank you for giving me a flashlight.
Mom, I fu**ing love you. Namaste.
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Editor: Lynn Hasselberger
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